Mo Mowlam talks to a disabled protester at the Stop the War march on 15 February 2003. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Laurie Penny on Iraq: Ten years ago we marched against the Iraq war and I learned a lesson in betrayal

In the end, it was in our name.

Ten years ago this month, millions of people all over the world marched against the war in Iraq – and were ignored. I was one of them. For me, at the age of 16, there were a lot of firsts on 15 February 2003: first truancy, first solo trip to London, first time seeing democracy rudely circumvented.

Tony Blair’s decision to take Britain into the Americans’ war in Iraq was an immediate, material calamity for millions of people in the Middle East. I’m writing here, though, about the effect of that decision on the generation in the west who were children then and are adults now. For us, the sense of betrayal was life-changing. We had thought that millions of people making their voices heard would be enough and we were wrong.

I wasn’t an activist at the time. I was just a schoolgirl overawed by the sheer scale of my own powerlessnesss. The bus to London from the centre of town left early in the morning and I bagged a seat at the back alongside some older students who chatted about the first Gulf war and the international oil lobby. One of them, I remember, was carrying a handmade placard with a picture of a woman’s pubic triangle luxuriously adorned with real, glued-on human hair and the legend “The Only Bush I’d Trust Is My Own”. Upon being asked the obvious question, she indicated the shy, smiling young man beside her and told us: “Armpit hair.”

As London began to materialise out of its dowdy, drawn-out suburbs, we had no conception of the scale of the organisation and planning involved to get two million people on to the streets. When we got off the bus at Embankment, the roadsides were crammed with buses, people surging along the pavement, joining the hundreds pouring into the road, the whistle-sellers and the newspaper hawkers directing us. Under the bridges by the river, the people moved like a flood. I shinned up a set of traffic lights to get a better look. Tens of thousands of banners and placards, most of them churned out of the same Stop the War press and bearing the legends “No” and “Not in My Name”, moving with slow certainty towards Westminster. From above, all of those cardboard squares seemed to tessellate and resolve into a larger picture – No. No. No. No. No.

It was the first time I remember feeling part of something larger than myself. It was only later, after the war and the next six years of progressive assault on civil liberties had broken any faith I or my schoolmates might have had in the Labour Party, that I learned about the endless arguments that went on behind the scenes. At the time I had no idea of the factional squabbling that prevented that march from becoming the powerful people’s movement it might have been. I don’t remember the presence of union members and socialist parties as vividly as I remember the performance artists with their creepy, bloodypaint- spattered masks, the kids strapped on their parents’ backs, the elderly couples with their Thermos flasks and sandwiches wrapped in foil.

It was a very British protest: polite, resentful and passive-aggressive. One got the sense that if Tony Blair had shown up, he’d have been subject to a mass blanking. There was a muted menace to the mood, chants that would flare up and then die down, some of them endearingly altered versions of current chart hits (“Who let the bombs drop? Bush, Bush and Blair!”). Most of all, there were the whistles, shrill and incoherent and frustrated, like 10,000 PE teachers on the move, a notion that still crops up in my nightmares.

What changed in 2003 was that millions of ordinary citizens around the world finally understood that the game was rigged, because only a few weeks after that march the US and its allies went to war anyway. The people had withdrawn their consent, loudly and peacefully and in numbers too big to ignore, and they had been rebuffed with hardly a second thought. Representative democracy had failed to represent.

“Not in My Name” felt, even at the time, like a slogan of last resort, as if we had already accepted, on some level, that war was going to happen and the most we could do was tut disapprovingly. The terrible thing about protest is that when it remains satisfied with expressing distaste for the status quo, the status quo is quite happy to proceed as planned. Two million people went home that day feeling they’d at least made their objections felt, but it turned out not to be enough. In the end, it was in our name.

I have no doubt that, a decade from now, people in their mid-twenties will speak of the student riots of 2010-2011 with the same sad sense of lessons learned. At Millbank, when 4,000 students and schoolchildren smashed up the entrance to the Conservative Party headquarters and held an impromptu rave in the lobby, several young people mentioned the Stop the War march of 2003, how all that passive, peaceful shuffling from one rally point to another had failed to achieve anything concrete.

My generation’s lack of faith in the political process has often been mistaken for apathy. It is only now, with ordinary people across the world putting their energies into movements that bypass mainstream politics, that the betrayal of Bush and Blair’s wars is beginning to be understood. We have known since we were at school that it’s not enough simply to make our voices heard. We have to make sure that we are listened to – and we’re still working out how to do that.

Editor's note: This piece originally stated that Nato went to war in Iraq. The error has been corrected. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder